As described in ‘ABOUT THEIROWNSTORIES’ [see page at top of screen] I became intrigued by an inherited box of nameless photographs. I have always thought of my great-grandmother Jane (MUIR) WATSON as the person responsible for keeping this collection of photographs together and safe. My great-grandfather Thomas WATSON was, according to family stories, a ‘dour Scot’, not easily given to nostalgia or sentimentality. I cannot imagine him taking the time or trouble to maintain this collection of photographs safely through years of moving from farm to farm in Scotland, a long, sea-sick inducing voyage to Canada, and the primitive pioneer farm living conditions in the prairies of Saskatchewan.
Why was this collection of photographs so important to my great-grandmother Jane (also called ‘Jean’)? With research I learned that both my Muir and Watson great-grandparents came from large extended families in Ayr, Ayrshire, Scotland. I learned that my great-grandmother had nine siblings; seven brothers and two sisters. When the Watson family immigrated to Saskatchewan in 1910, of the Muir family only Jean’s elderly parents (James MUIR and Helen MCNAB), one sister (Helen Ramsay (MUIR) ORMSBY), and two brothers (George Kennedy MUIR and Gilbert MUIR ) remained in Scotland – the rest were either dead or had emigrated to countries such as England, Australia, Africa or eastern Canada. Immigration to a new country in those days meant an almost certain permanent move; rarely did people have the money to return home for a visit. It is likely that Jean was homesick for Scotland and worried about her elderly parents whom she assumed she would never see again. Based on family photographs and records it appears that those who remained in Scotland were close, visited and attended weddings and family events together. Jean and her family were missed and her siblings stayed in touch by sending photographs and postcards commemorating family events whether happy (weddings) or sad (deaths). I believe that many of the photographs in the old box were sent by Helen to her sister Jean in Saskatchewan. I believe that the sisters were close and that I may learn more about the personality of my great-grandmother if I understand Helen’s life.
What was my great-grandmother’s sister Helen like? Family stories report that, in her later years, Helen was a domineering and unpleasant woman, accustomed to having her own way. When her youngest child Henry (‘Harry’), who had lived with his mother for 36 years, married, Harry’s sister Margaret took a job as a housekeeper in another town and took their mother with her, to relieve the situation and give Harry and his wife a chance to live on their own at Brickrow Farm without Helen’s domineering presence. Were there circumstances in her life that formed her character?
Photo below left: Jane (Jean) (Muir) Watson, 10 June, 1914, Lemberg, Saskatchewan, Canada. Photo below right: Jean’s sister Helen Ramsay (Muir) Ormsby, October 24, 1924, Ayr, Scotland. The specific dates and locations of the photos are known since each was taken at a family wedding.
The only photograph (right) I have seen of Helen was taken October 24, 1924 at the wedding of her daughter Jean. Helen, 50, appeared to be a worried and unhappy woman, however a son had recently died, she had just buried her brother-in-law and her father, 81, was gravely ill and died less than three months later. By 1924 she had already buried four children. While a formal unsmiling demeanour was required in photographs of that time, her life was filled with many challenges.
She may have even envied her sister Jean. Although Jean’s life in pioneering Saskatchewan was not easy, the move had been successful. Her children were healthy, were land owners, had married, had children. This had signaled a new start for the Watson family, a start that Tom Watson said he “wished he had taken 20 years earlier”.
While I started with the intent of telling the story of Helen Ramsay MUIR and her husband John ORMSBY, it soon became apparent that her story could only be told in the context of the whole Ormsby family and Brickrow Farm. When 20 year old Helen married 38 year old John and moved to Brickrow in 1894, three generations of Ormsby family had already lived at the farm for at least 43 years. There is no doubt that expectations and traditions had already been established. Her life at Brickrow for the next 53 years was interwoven with Ormsby family events and Brickrow Farm.
Searching for information on the Ormsby family led to a rich treasure trove of material, much of it unknown to me and I believe others in the family. One brother of John Ormsby left Scotland to join the excitement of the New Zealand gold rush in the late 1800s. Additional research revealed unknown stories of two Scottish brothers who were born in the early 1890’s, who ventured abroad, were caught up in the First World War, who survived and the direction their lives took later. The research, which involved accessing civil registrations, military records, electoral records, passenger lists and cemetery records, identified trails the brothers took through Scotland, England, Singapore, Malaya, Australia, Turkey, Egypt and France.
It was against this canvas of world and Ormsby family events and activity that Helen and John Ormsby lived their lives. This then [and the next posts], is the story of Helen Ramsay Muir, her husband John Ormsby and the Ormsby family of Brickrow Farm.